Behind the scenes, Paul has held weekly meetings with former Reagan and George H. W. Bush advisers, asking them to help him articulate a “realist” foreign policy for a new generation. “I was surprised when he called and wanted to meet, but I met with him and we talked for a few hours about how different crises in the past have been handled by Congress and the president,” says a former Republican official who met with Paul earlier this summer. “It wasn’t what I expected. Clearly he wants to be more than Ron Paul’s son; my impression is that he’s staking out his own ground.”
Another official Paul has sought for counsel is Richard Burt, a former ambassador to Germany and State Department adviser for Reagan. “The senator’s instincts, in terms of defining the national interest, are exactly right,” he says. “He and I have spoken about how Syria doesn’t meet the threshold that Reagan would set for military action. What he’s doing isn’t knee-jerk isolationism but a return to Reagan’s sense of prudence.”
Paul’s play for support also includes a revamped media strategy. Yes, he’s still going on Fox News and conservative talk radio, but his aides say he’s determined to make his case beyond the conservative bubble. Case in point: Meet the Press.
After three years of denying interview requests from NBC News, because he was angry over how they covered his 2010 race, Paul finally relented and decided to go on the network’s marquee Sunday program for the first time this past week. “The timing was right for him to make a splash on Meet
with Syria, so he pulled the trigger,” says a Paul adviser.
That appearance helped cement his status as the unofficial leader of the opposition. Republicans have noticed, and on Wednesday, several of his colleagues joined him on committee in voting against the resolution to authorize military strikes, from Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is hardly a member of the Paul wing of the GOP, to Senators John Barrasso (Wyo.), Jim Risch (Idaho), and Ron Johnson (Wis.). Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a fellow Kentuckian who’s currently entangled in a primary war with a tea-party challenger, has been cautious in his remarks.
Moving ahead, Paul’s aides say the senator will spend more of his time working the inside angle against intervention. In the House, he’s working closely with Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Justin Amash of Michigan to lobby Republicans to oppose. In the Senate, he hopes to have Rubio, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee of Utah, among others, at his side. On the outside, several tea-party groups and conservative powers, such as Heritage Action, share Paul’s position, but Paul believes his time is best spent working the phones and, when appropriate, speaking with the press. “The outside stuff is organic and not being directed by us,” says the Paul adviser. “We didn’t have to organize it; it’s happening on its own.”
Paul’s staff sees the House vote in July on Amash’s amendment to restrict the National Security Agency’s surveillance capabilities as a precedent for the kind of coalition Paul is trying to build. On that vote, liberal doves joined with Paul-aligned Republicans to nearly pass the legislation. Paul feels that if he and Amash can get that band back together, they have a shot at beating Boehner in the House and then forcing Obama’s hand. Maybe they can even get close to doing something similar in the Senate. It won’t be easy, but this is Paul’s moment, and he’s trying to make the most of it.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.